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REPORT: Houston Media Outlets Fail To Debunk Misinformation About Equal Rights Ordinance

June 27, 2014 2:16 pm ET

Houston media outlets have failed to hold anti-LGBT activists accountable for the misinformation they have spread about the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), currently the focus of a repeal effort. Media outlets have allowed myths about the ordinance’s protections for transgender people to go unchallenged and have disproportionately cited anti-LGBT groups and advocates in their reporting on the measure.

Houston City Council Passed Equal Rights Ordinance

City Council Voted 11-6 To Approve Sweeping Non-Discrimination Ordinance. According to Buzzfeed:

The Houston City Council, led by out Mayor Annise Parker, passed an ordinance Wednesday that prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Houston City Council members approved the measure, or the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, after hearing hours of passionate testimony in a 11-6 vote. More than 220 people testified before the council, Parker said, with a majority in favor of the ordinance.

[…]

The ordinance broadly bans discrimination — on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — as well as on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military states, religion, disability, genetic information, or pregnancy. [Buzzfeed, 5/28/14]

Equal Rights Ordinance Prohibits Anti-LGBT Discrimination. According to MSNBC.com:

The ordinance bans discrimination in housing and employment among 14 characteristics – including protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It was a personal and public victory for openly-gay Mayor Annise Parker who began crafting the law back in December. She signed the ordinance shortly after the vote.

[…]

Before this week’s vote, Houston was the country’s largest city with no laws protecting citizens against discrimination. There are federal protections for race, color, religion, sex, and age, among others, but nothing on the books federally for members of the LGBT community. Congress has debated, but failed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act – the bill that would extend protections to gay and transgender Americans. [MSNBC.com, 5/29/14]

Conservatives Are Fighting To Repeal The Ordinance

Houston Area Pastors Council Launched Effort To Repeal The Ordinance. The Houston Area Pastors Council is gathering signatures to place a repeal measure on the November ballot. According to The Advocate:

The Houston Area Pastors Council plans to begin gathering signatures to put the ordinance to a repeal vote in November. To get a repeal measure on the ballot, it would need about 17,000 signatures, 10 percent of the turnout in the last mayoral election, within 30 days.

Dave Welch of the pastors council issued a statement saying, “Once we correct this grievous act through the ballot this fall, we will then remind those members that patronizing a tiny interest group and outgoing mayor instead of serving the people leads to a short political career.” [The Advocate5/29/14]

Opponents Claim That Transgender Protections Would Threaten Women And Children. Opponents of the ordinance, including Fox News’ Mike Huckabee and Texas Values’ Jonathan Saenz, asserted that the measure’s protections for transgender people would allow sexual predators to sneak into women’s restrooms, jeopardizing women and children. [Equality Matters5/13/14 and 5/30/14]

Repeal Campaign Is Touting The Transgender Bathroom Myth. As Jeremy Hooper noted, the “No Unequal Rights” coalition fighting to repeal the ordinance has peddled the transgender bathroom myth in radio ads. [Good As You, 6/27/14]

Independent Experts Have Debunked The Transgender Bathroom Myth.  Law enforcement officials, victims’ rights advocates, and state human rights commission officials in states and localities with transgender non-discrimination protections have debunked the transgender bathroom myth. [Equality Matters3/20/14]

Anti-LGBT Misinformation Went Unanswered In Local Media Reporting

Outlets Repeatedly Parroted The Transgender Bathroom Myth. Over the course of the month opponents have had to collect signatures for a repeal effort, Houston media outlets have parroted rather than debunked misinformation about Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. According to an Equality Matters analysisHouston media outlets repeatedly cited misinformation about the Equal Rights Ordinance, including the transgender bathroom myth and concerns about religious liberty: 

  • More Than Half Of Fox Affiliate KRIV’s Coverage Mentioned The Transgender Bathroom Myth. 
  • Only One Column, In The Houston Chronicle, Debunked Conservative Talking Points About The Ordinance.

Outlets Disproportionately Relied On Commentary From Anti-LGBT Groups And Figures

Houston Media Outlets Failed To Cite Pro-LGBT Groups Or Activists. While several reports cited anti-LGBT groups like the Houston Area Pastors Council and Texas Values or members of such groups, none cited pro-LGBT advocates:

METHODOLOGY

Equality Matters accessed The Houston Chronicle’s coverage by searching LexisNexis for the terms (gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or LGBT or sexual orientation or gender identity) and (discrimination or nondiscrimination or non-discrimination or anti-discrimination or antidiscrimination or Houston Equal Rights Ordinance or ordinance)between May 28 and June 26, 2014.Equality Matters ran the same search terms through TV Eyes for NBC affiliate KPRC, CBS affiliate KHOU, and Fox affiliate KRIV, also searching between May 28 and June 26. Outlets were considered to lend credence to misinformation against the ordinance if they reported opponents' misleading assertions without debunking the misinformation; outlets were considered to have debunked misinformation if they cited independent experts or figures in response to specific claims or if the outlet included editorial commentary rejecting such claims. When counting pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT advocates, Equality Matters excluded members of the general public featured in person-on-the-street interviews as well as Mayor Annise Parker and members of the Houston City Council. Reruns, teases for upcoming segments, and passing mentions in the course of articles or segments about other topics were excluded. Because of technical problems within TV Eyes, Equality Matters excluded ABC affiliate KRTK from its search.